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At the Death House Door

A closer look at capital punishment in the U.S.

By Kevin Spurgaitis

At the Death House Door
Directed by Steve James and Peter Gilbert (Kartemquin Films and the Chicago Tribune)

Ninety-five times, Rev. Carroll Pickett stood and watched another human being strapped down and injected with a lethal solution. For all 95, Pickett had to get the condemned onto a gurney without a fight.

At the Death House Door follows the career of Pickett, a Presbyterian minister who served 15 years as a death house chaplain at the “Walls” prison unit in Huntsville, Texas. In particular, it traces his transformation from a death-penalty advocate — his grandfather was a murder victim and his father always taught him to “hang ’em high, hang ’em fast” — to a man increasingly haunted by what he witnessed.

A soft-spoken Pickett acknowledges that, at various times, he even questioned whether God is just, whether human beings can change who they are, whether providing a few moments of comfort for death row prisoners was accomplishing anything at all. About one thing he is now certain, however: capital punishment is wrong.

Toward the end of the film, Pickett sadly surveys the rows of tombstones of prisoners he has buried. The crosses, labelled only with an ‘X’ and an inmate number, mark the graves of executed convicts. Pickett’s newfound sense of mercy and the truths he speaks are a humbling lesson about crime and punishment in the U.S.

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